They say the only people who know true freedom are musicians and gangsters,” Chris Robinson says with a laugh. “And Bob Dylan said to live outside the law you must be honest. We’re living in these anxiety-filled times, in an era of ‘no truth,’ but what our music represents is this truly honest way of communicating with people, and that’s a really freeing thing.”
Freedom, it seems, suits the Chris Robinson Brotherhood well. The band is in the midst of one of their most prolific periods to date, with a slew of studio and live records coming out amidst a rigorous tour schedule that only seems to fuel their fire even further. Their stellar new album, ‘Barefoot In The Head,’ marks the CRB’s third studio release in just two years, and it finds them pushing boundaries and breaking new ground with more joy and wonder than ever before. Overspilling with stunning musicianship and infectious energy, the album showcases the continued growth of Robinson’s songwriting partnership with his bandmates (guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Tony Leone, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, and bassist Jeff Hill) and revels in the kind of adventurousness that can only come from five artists tuned into the same sonic wavelength.
‘Barefoot In The Head’ follows last year’s critically acclaimed LP, ‘Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel,’ and its companion EP, ‘If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now.” Rolling Stone called the former “good-time music on an end-times mission” while MOJO hailed the band as “masterful players on a Grail-like search for the cosmic heart of California.” Relix Magazine praised their “psychedelic soul music,” and Uncut Magazine described the full-length as “their best, their liveliest, and certainly their most Brotherly.” The CRB took both records on the road with passion and fervor, slaying festival crowds from LOCKN’ to High Sierra and packing dance floors from The Fillmore in San Francisco to The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY.
The sessions that produced those two releases also introduced the band to a studio the band dubbed Brotherhood Arts Laboratory, a breathtaking space to create located on the side of a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean in northern California. Robinson’s time there, writing and recording with his musical brothers, was such an invigorating revelation that he returned home and immediately began planting seeds for the follow-up. While the writing process is always a bit mysterious, one thing was certain: he and the band would be returning to the mystical location in “Unicorn, California.”
“If you find the best fishing hole, of course you’re going to go back,” says Robinson. “Even though that studio is only nine miles from my house, you feel like you’re tucked away someplace remote when you’re working there, someplace special that no one can get to. For us, the vibe really dictates the way we work, and when you’re in that studio, you can feel the magic flowing. There’s a weird, tangible, strange séance between people that happens there.”
That chemistry is essential to the CRB’s DNA. Though songs often begin with Robinson, the end results are almost always the fruit of the band’s collective consciousness.
“I bring these little verse-and-chorus ideas to them and then boom: it blossoms,” says Robinson. “Sometimes Neal hears something, or Adam adds a part. Sometimes I’ll be playing a riff at soundcheck and Jeff and Tony will join in. When we all have something together, that’s what the CRB sounds like. We produced the last couple recordings ourselves, and there’s never been one moment of tension, one argument. That’s just so rare.”
The album opens with the “Behold The Seer,” which merges funky analog keys, bluesy lead guitar and cosmic wisdom into a potent, psychedelic, Americana stew. Robinson sings in what sounds like a mission statement for the CRB: “If you want to keep your engine humming, keep your eyes wide ahead and don’t look back.” As the chorus unfolds: “There’s still lessons in these blues, we’re still free to choose, so put on your dancing shoes…”
On the mellow, “She Shares My Blanket,” Robinson crafts cinematic scenes from a winter love affair in the mountains. On “Blonde Light Of Day,” special guest Barry Sless’ adds elegant pedal steel, which casts a warm, romantic haze. “Blue Star Woman” sounds like T-Rex dressed in overalls living on a west coast commune. For the English psych-folk-inspired “Glow,” The CRB invited celebrated sarodist Alam Khan (son of the legendary Ali Akbar Khan), to join them in the studio.
“I’ve been lucky enough to make a lot of records and produce a lot of sessions,” says Robinson. “The recording of ‘Glow’ you hear on the album is our second take, captured live on the floor, and it was just so beautiful. That single take is one of the most special things I’ve ever done in the studio.”
Songs like “High Is Not The Top” and “If You Had A Heart To Break” tap into The CRB’s country side, while “Good To Know” and “Dog Eat Sun” represent their own brand of psychedelia, resulting from the intimate musical relationship they’ve honed over countless hours performing and recording together. The full-tilt boogie of “Hark The Herald Hermit Speaks” channels freewheeling 60s’ folk into breakneck stream of consciousness.
“That song is really a disassociated music poem about day dreams and strange people,” Robinson laughs.
Those two topics have always been Robinson’s forte. More than just a storyteller, he’s a rock and roll folklorist, and ‘Barefoot In The Head’ is populated with mysterious characters and scenes that blur the lines between reality and fantasy. And like so many tall tales that have become part of the American lexicon, Robinson’s stories offer existential rewards for those willing to push below the surface.
“The music that we make, the concerts that we play, it’s this world we’ve created for ourselves and our people,” explains Robinson. “We want everybody to understand that you can always be barefoot in your head. There’s always this other place you can go that’s real. Or is it real? That’s your decision to make. What you going to let be real to you?”
That may ultimately be the true definition of freedom: not what’s bestowed upon you by others, but rather what you bestow upon yourself. For the CRB, that means the ability to follow their muse unfettered by expectation or preconceptions, the ability to measure their success purely in terms of artistic fulfillment and the bonds of brotherhood.
“The greatest thing about what music represents to me at 50 years old is that I still get to come at it from an outsider’s perspective,” says Robinson. “The idea of it being a commercial enterprise or about popularity or about anything superficial is so far removed from what makes it go for us. After six years of solid touring with this band, we can still roll into Fayetteville, Arkansas on a Tuesday night and have the most fun of any musical thing I’ve ever been a part of. We don’t have the weight of responsibility or nostalgia, which means we’re in the very psychedelic situation of getting to be totally honest and create everything in the moment. That’s freedom.”